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MIT student blogger Bryan O. '07

Nonlinearity by Bryan

My conjecture on finding my way through four years at MIT.

I wrote a letter to myself before coming to college that I promised not to read until I had graduated. Having unearthed it from beneath the small island of paper known as problem sets, tests, term papers, etc I decided to read it and see if my personal predictions and goals for my future had been achieved.

Unfortunately, if i had to grade myself on level of success in achieving said goals, this probably would have been a failed test. However, with extra time over the summer and this semester to look back at my four years as a continuous system rather than a bunch of discrete points, while things don’t make any more sense necessarily I see that I was able to carve out a path for myself that I feel very happy about, and if I could go back and do it all over again, I’m not sure that I’d purposefully try to do anything differently; however, I am also not sure that I would want everything to occur the exact same way that it did.

To start, I will describe two snapshots at two different phases of my college career:

1. September 2003 (Freshman Year): I had a mustache, for one. I wanted to major in Computer Science and graduate and then start my own software company where I developed video games. At some points, I think I favored my extracurriculars over my problem sets. (Disclaimer: I did always have an interest in bioengineering, but i just didn’t know about it as much as I did computer science, so I wanted to be “safe” and go with something that I knew.)

2. May 2007 (Senior Year): As many of my friends had begun looking for apartments and packing their boxes, I was en route to spend another five years at MIT pursuing a PhD in Biological Engineering.

For many this would seem as a very strange plot twist in my biography, and then for some it might not, but I think that one of the things that I appreciate about my MIT experience thus far is that I have been able to carve out my own experience and connect extremely disparate nodes into a path that brought me from point A to point B.

For example, I’ll draw the following map for you that I think brought me to discovering my passion for bioengineering.

As a freshman, I came to MIT with aspirations of becoming UA president and making sweeping changes to undergraduate life. Having come out of high school with experience in student government, I thought this was really what I was supposed to do. So I did. After attending an information session, I had signed up to chair a committee on housing and orientation even though I had only been at MIT for a week. While I had a significant learning curve throughout this experience, I was able to meet a wide array of people from all over campus and begin to gain a better understanding of who the people were that I went to school with. That year, with the announcement of the retirement of our former President, Charles Vest, students were invited to apply to be members of the Student Advisory Group to the Corporation Committee on the Presidency where a group of students from all over campus came together to provide a student opinion on what MIT’s priorities should be and what type of characteristics we sought in a president.

As a freshman I thought that it would be extremely unlikely that I would be invited to participate in such a committee; however, having gained what little experience I had so far with my experience with the UA, I was selected as a member where I finally really met the other student population of graduate students in a context outside of them being my recitation instructor. This experience in itself provided me with a lot more perspective than I had about life at MIT, but it also began to expose me to things about college life that I had not yet begun to consider. As time went on with this committee and I got to know the other students on the committee better, they began to tell me about their own MIT experiences.

In parallel with my work on this committee, it also became time for me to select a major, and by this time, I knew that computer science was no longer my intended field because I had realized that I wanted to something more physical that I could connect to biology which was becoming more interesting to me by the minute. Fortunately, through my work on the committee, one of the graduate students there was a graduate student in Biological Engineering and she was able to describe to me about her research and work and she actually helped me find a UROP in her lab my sophomore year.

If I had to limit myself to only writing a paragraph about my entire UROP experience at MIT, I’d truly have to say that it was really life changing for me because it showed me that science wasn’t a passive beast that you encountered only through 20 pound textbooks. It was something that provided as much challenge and growth opportunities as anything else. I really attribute my UROP experience to really allowing me to explore interesting questions about biology as well as explore my own personal passions such that I know where I am now is where I want to be.

So as I sit in my theoretical rocking chair on my theoretical porch and look back on four years at MIT heading into another five, it’s seems quite bizarre that something done on a whim can propagate such unexpected downstream effects. I never won the UA presidency…actually, I lost a campaign for vice president my sophomore year, but I feel as though everything happened the way that it did and I made the most of it.

What does this all say about life at MIT?

Hmm…well I think what I want to say is that sometimes it’s very easy to project a very linear path for your life or your experience somewhere and have checkpoints along the way to enable failsafe mechanisms to make sure you end up where you a priori predict your end point. While this works for some, it may not work for others.

I’m personally beginning to believe that in college and especially at a place like MIT where there exist opportunities you may have never encountered in your life, it might be time to relax a lot of these constraints on what it is you have to do in order to become XX or win YY or move to ZZ. I think it’s more important to realize that paths can be somewhat erratic and extremely nonlinear, however, still at the “end” lead you to a place where you can be happy and feel accomplished. I believe that if I held myself to going a certain route that my MIT experience would have been very different. Allowing myself to dynamically readjust to my current environment as the four years progressed allowed me to take advantage of opportunities that I did not know about earlier. I’m not saying it’s easy either because sometimes it either seems like you have no idea where you’re headed or that you’re presented with so many opportunities that you don’t know how to appropriately make the “right” one, but sometimes it’s about taking that jump to the other side without knowing exactly what is there. That’s where the excitement is. I realize a lot of college is about learning how not to make mistakes a second time and learning how to take control of your life.

So embrace the unknown and ride the roller coaster like you never have before. I promise it will all work out.

12 responses to “Nonlinearity”

  1. Eric T. says:

    Thank you for enlightening us about your own experiences here at MIT. I think we have all gained a better sense of what to expect.

  2. Alex '11 says:

    hahaha! I’m a freshmen right now and I totally can relate to the excitement slash naivety that you felt… so much so that I spend a few moments laughing.

  3. Arkajit says:

    awesome post, bryan! it really captured a lot of the things i’ve been feeling as a freshman, a bit of anxiety about the unknown variables, but it’s good to know it all works out in the end and that my time here will probably be more exciting for being the more unpredictable smile

  4. Isshak says:

    Your post is actually kind of scary because the same is kind of hapenning to me : computer science sounds like a safe choise because I know a bit about it, but I get more interested by bio-chemical engineering by the minute (thanks to you and Melis !). Can you tell me the difference between biological engineering and bio-chemical engineering ?

  5. Ronny CHEN says:

    Core shaking…

  6. Hawkins says:

    Wow, great post! I’ve been a little anxious about the “path decision” lately too… I know I love Computer Science, but I’m not sure exactly what I want to do, and it’s good to know that that’s okay. =)

    BioEng sounds really cool, but Biology has never been my friend. There are a lot of options for the applications of CS though, so I have a feeling I’ll be struggling to pick between several good options.

  7. Nice article buddy…

  8. Hunter '11 says:

    So, was there a MASSIVE amount of confusion in between? I’m praying this all works out..

  9. Nihar says:

    Very well said Bryan! I totally connect to your idea of life’s excitement. If everything we think of comes true in life, then how could we ever experience something better than our imagination?
    Im happy that four years at MIT have taught you so much about life!(so that you/MIT can teach us in turn smile
    I wish you luck for the 5 year journey you are embarking upon at this Institvte. Im sure you have a tremendously challenging(and enjoyable) time ahead.

  10. Anonymous says:

    this also means tht u get in such communities if uv been in then in high school….they dnt give a chance 2 prove ur self…mayb ur high school ws nt good…others were influential..they donated..they gt everythng..captains..sports..selection..everything!!!!

  11. HARSH SINHA says:

    MIT – THE BEST ! ! !